Justice versus Equity

Asking about attitudes to ‘gender equality’ is evidently anachronistic for the two eldest generations. The modern discourse about gender equality did not take off in Norway until the 1970s. However, the concept seemed to make retrospective sense for the older generation by activating either earlier experiences of differential treatment and injustice or, instead, a defence of the gender order as they knew it from their childhood or adult life. Their reflections on equality and justice are connected to class rather than to gender, but when asked directly about gender equality, they tend to frame it as an appraisal of the positive and negative sides of the old gender order compared with today’s gender order. For the men, modern gender equality is fundamentally at odds with their own life project as it makes their own form of masculinity—and the sacrifices that came with it—worthless. It also makes their idealised stay-at-home wives the targets of critique. They are occupied with the crumbling moral order in many areas and trace this decay back to the material greed of modern times, where people expect to get everything in their lap without having to work for it. As we have seen, their critique of modern times is epitomised by their worry about the increasing prevalence of divorces.

However, these old men are also aware that things have changed since they established their own families. Some of them help their wives more in the household now after they have they retired, and think this is fair but not easy to learn at such a late age.[1] Their investment in the gender complementary model is much stronger than the women’s and they strive to reconcile this with the new times. Behind their worry for young mothers today we discern compassion with their own hardworking mothers, whereas the discontent of the women of their own generation seems to have gone more or less unnoticed. Martin, who idealised the female homemaker in his own marriage, says:

Now it’s more even. Man and wife are more on the same footing. Often they both work. My daughter-in-law—and then he has to help with various things at home. Before they got married too. Inside as well, when she is at work and comes home at 16.30. And they have two children. So it’s much more even now.

It wasn’t like that back then. The wife didn’t work, outside the home. There’s probably more of that today, but it could result in the wife being more overworked when she both has a salaried job and has to keep the home.

Q: Yes, because she is still responsible for the home?

Yes, you never get away from that, that equality that the husband does the same things, looking after the children or those things. And we are probably not fit for the task. It becomes a chore for us, without the joy it is for the wife. It can’t be, because we are differently wired. Quite differently wired. (Martin, b. 1905)

Martin defends the complementary gender order by invoking psychological differences, but is also at pains to make clear that this order does not represent a value hierarchy, but quite the opposite. Others refer to biological differences in strength. Harald is fiercely against the gender- neutral law regarding taking over the farm that was passed in 1974: ‘It doesn’t fit a girl to be a farmer, he says, it is too much hard work. But even in situations where the woman is strong, it feels ‘against nature’ to mess with the gender categories. John, who talked about his mother’s strength when she carried the laundry basket up to the attic, laughingly cites a former Labour politician who once said in response to a question about his view on gender equality: ‘In our house there are two different genders, that’s all he said ’ However, John also feels it necessary to assure the interviewer: ‘But I would never step on a woman’ and he adds that violence against women is ‘the absolute bottom . The gender complementarity order also presupposes a decent and protective man. Some of the men support the idea of gender equality in the workplace. These are working-class men who have been active in their unions and who extend their resistance against class inequalities to embrace gender equality. Gunnar, the son of the sociable tailor, has even been a pioneer in hiring women in his workplace. But even these more gender-progressive old men find it a bit exaggerated if women have to be better than men all the time, and privately prefer women to stay home as long as there are children to care for. They defend the mild and kind motherliness of the feminine carer against new ideas of women becoming like men.

Even though none of the women in the oldest generation would call themselves feminists, their attitude to gender equality is markedly more positive than the men’s. Like the men of their generation, the women criticise both the class differences from their childhood and the material greed of today. They worry about their stressed daughters who have to take care of both family and outside work, but they also think that the daughters have managed this situation rather well and admire them for it. Thus, for the women, the belief in gender complementarity is not so emotionally hard-wired as it is for the men. We only hear one explicit defence of the gender complementarity model among the eldest generation of women. It comes from Borghild, who stayed rural working class all her life, and she emphasises the joint responsibility and the value of women’s work in the agrarian family economy:

So far my opinion has been that a woman, she belongs to the house, and a man should go to work ... in the old days, they started out with two empty hands, the man struggled outside and she struggled inside, maybe with a lot of kids, and they got by then, and I think they would’ve gotten by today too if they hadn’t started with that gender equality. But that’s of course because they have so much education today that if they marry, they want to continue with whatever they were educated to do, and there’s something to be said for that too. But then I think it’s all too easy that the woman may think ‘I can just leave it all, because I have my education and I can get another job’, and then it’ll affect the kids and they’ll get the same attitude. (Borghild, b. 1911)

Other women with agrarian roots instead connect the question of gender equality to the asymmetries and injustices in the gender order of their childhood. Johanna, who married a farmer, says quietly that she thinks that too much hard work fell on women and that there should have been more cooperation between husband and wife. Had she been younger, she would have liked to have a job of her own outside the family.

The strongest support for gender equality is found among the women who received a higher education or had wanted one. The combination of strong and kind mothers and distant fathers in the middle-class families seems to have produced fertile soil for supporting gender equality, even if they were not able to put it into practice in their own lives. Their focus is on the equal capabilities of women and men and on women’s right to freedom of choice. Clara grew up in a community where most men were at sea and the women took care of things at home. She connects her positive attitude to gender equality today to her experience of strong women and an encouraging mother, but it was not a relevant issue when she was young:

We were girls after all, and I thought I had quite a strong position as a young girl in my circles. So I didn’t really think that it, I wasn’t so concerned with that. I did feel that, well, I have always been pretty self-reliant, really. And I’ve done what I wanted... and with a wonderful mother who listened to what you said. Was never ... she thought it was great that you were independent and did what you thought, that you did your own thing. I have always made the conditions of my own life. I have never asked anyone what I should become or anything like that. (Clara, b. 1912)

Agnes, also born in 1912, had a more subdued mother, but still understood her message: ‘Mother was a little ... she thought women should be jvrward. That’s for sure, without her saying anything, then ... she liked it. When she was finally allowed by her father to attend university in 1932, she experienced being part of the first cohort of medical students where there were ‘lots and lots of girls. There were seven out of 50, and that is a lot. However, even the women with higher education were first and foremost obliged to be wives and mothers, unless they divorced. Whereas the men in this generation are loyal to their belief in gender complementarity, at least within the family and with regard to personal capabilities, the women are stuck in the tension between beliefs in justice, equality and freedom on the one hand, and the strong social norm of gender complementarity and gender hierarchy on the other.

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  • [1] Statistics from 1988 onwards indicate a clear rise in positive attitudes to equal sharing of housework and childcare in all cohorts. For instance, the percentage of the cohort born 1931—1934 whothought housework should be shared equally rose from 38 per cent in 1988 to 52 per cent in 2008(Hansen and Slagsvold 2012: Table 6.2).
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